Celebrating a Century of Excellence: The University of North Carolina Press Turns 100, Part Two

2022 marks the one hundred year anniversary of the founding of the University of North Carolina Press.

This second blog post of a series of five is taken from an essay on the history of UNC Press written by Advancement Council member the Rev. David C. (Kirk) Brown, first delivered to the Pen and Plate Club of Asheville.

Read parts onethree, and four

In the United States, university presses were slow to appear. While some intramural publishing at universities was common, particularly of journals and reports for the learning community, it was not until the latter half of the 19th century that the institution of the university press came into its own. Earliest to be founded was Cornell (1869), which operated for a few years before closing. The prize for the university press in longest continuous operation goes to what is generally acknowledged as the first self- described research university, Johns Hopkins. In 1878 just two years after opening its doors, Johns Hopkins launched its press. The founding president, Daniel Coit Gilman, offered this rationale: “It is one of the noblest duties of a university to advance knowledge, and to diffuse it not merely among those who can attend the daily lectures— but far and wide.

Likewise, within a year of its founding in 1891, the University of Chicago had its own press. By the end of the century there were presses at Columbia and the University of California. In the first two decades of the twentieth century presses were established at Princeton, Fordham, Yale, the University of Washington, Harvard, New York University, Stanford and the University of Illinois.

But if the world of commercial publishing was thriving, why did these universities feel the need to establish their own presses? The driving force came from research universities, arising in the late 19th century, which understood their mission to include not only molding the character of society’s next generation of leaders, and passing along a knowledge of history and cultural traditions; but also to be centers for the discovery of new knowledge. As one historian has written, “this new knowledge would be the product of research carried out in university libraries and laboratories by scholars—and research, if the discovery of knowledge was to progress, had to be shared through some formal system of dissemination.” Given the highly competitive business of commercial publishing, universities quickly realized that their scholarly publications would hold little interest for the large publishing houses. There simply was no hope of profit in such narrow markets. Thus university presses began to emerge as an indispensable component of the modern research university.

Mid- 20th century UNC Press colophon

On March 13, 1922 the University of North Carolina Press convened its first meeting. So we find ourselves this evening quite literally at the centennial of its founding, the first secular press in the South, and one of the very first presses associated with a public university. But why the University of North Carolina? And why 1922? Little could the 13 men—and they were all men—present at that inaugural gathering have imagined what this fledgling Press would become. Ten were prominent members of the faculty, and three were members of the Board of Trustees and UNC alumni. In many ways it was a constellation of intellectual titans, in others a most unlikely assortment of personalities. How some of them could even have abided one another, let alone worked side by side, is hard to imagine. Among the trustees were a leading businessman; a prominent lawyer; and a generous benefactor. Among the faculty present were the new university president, Harry Woodburn Chase; the renowned university librarian, Louis Round Wilson; the brilliant professor of sociology, progressive author and founder of the Institute for Research in Social Science, Howard W. Odum; an irascible defender of the Lost Cause and builder of the university’s Southern Historical Collection, J.G. Roulhac Hamilton. Joining these were the university’s chief biologist; the university’s first professor of journalism; the Dean of the Graduate School; the Dean of the Law School; the Dean of the School of Education; and the Director of the Extension Division for the University. Their credentials were impressive, their achievements spectacular, and their collective vision historic. From their original charter they set the course: to publish periodicals devoted to the advancement of learning; to publish catalogues, bulletins, and other documents of the University; and “to promote generally, by publishing deserving books, the advancement of the arts and sciences, and the development of literature.”

Just what had brought them to this moment? Much has been written about the devastation in the South wrought by the post-Civil War years. In addition to the physical impoverishment of North Carolina, there was also the intellectual and spiritual poverty of the late 19th century. Some in the South sought refuge in the myth of a noble, if lost, cause. Others placed an overly naïve hope in a New South, emerging as the region reinvented itself economically and culturally. But another force was at work, too: the 1920s represented the transition from so-called Victorianism to Modernism. Southern intellectuals awakening to Modernism found this new lens both threatening and invigorating, Notes one historian: “Straddling two cultural eras, theirs was an unparalleled opportunity to see the South with fresh eyes, using the conceptual tools made possible by the social sciences and the perspectives afforded by Modernist literary culture in bringing to light facets of southern culture previously ignored.” All of this was reflected in what was happening at the University of North Carolina.

The Rev. David C. (Kirk) Brown is the recently retired chaplain of Christ School. Kirk received his A.B. from Davidson College, his M.A. from the University of Virginia, and his M.Div. from Virginia Theological Seminary. He is a life-long educator. Having taught German and English for 12 years at Virginia Episcopal School, he then attended seminary and was ordained an Episcopal priest. After serving three years at St. John’s Church in Roanoke, VA, he returned to school work, serving 24 years as Chaplain at Christ School and teaching religion. Kirk lives with his wife, Shelley, on a farm in Fletcher, NC.